In April, 2000, Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy published an article in Wired magazine entitled, "Why the future doesn’t need us." Joy argues that emerging technologies such as robotics, nanoscience, and artificial intelligence threaten to spiral out of control and endanger humanity. As we slip deeper into dependence on machines, he says, we will rely on them to make every decision for us, and existence without them might become impossible. Eventually, machines may decide that existence with us is unnecessary. When we can’t live without them, and they can’t live with us, what will happen?

Not everyone agrees with Joy’s fatalistic view, including the scientists whose work he cites. The possibility of HAL—the intelligent computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey—and his brethren eliminating the human race is probably not something we will have to worry about for a while, but new technologies have already begun to redefine daily life at an astounding rate. The information age has ushered in a well-documented revolution in design and production over the past decade. So far these changes mostly have affected our ability to envision and illustrate new forms, but soon the entire artificial environment may be restructured. Our understandings of architecture may quickly become outdated.

Nanotechnology alone offers exciting and disquieting possibilities. Originally proposed by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman forty years ago, nanotech manipulates individual atoms and molecules to build things—anything, in fact. Experts anticipate that within the next few decades, large-scale objects, including buildings, could be fabricated using microscopic robots called assemblers, which would join to make a cybernetic glue, able to assume any shape and size. Such an instrument would eliminate traditional constraints of design and construction. Standard, irreducible components, such as the 2 X 4, the brick, steel shapes, nails and screws, will be replaced by microscopic parts. Form, texture, color, and strength would be defined at the cellular level. Orthogonal geometry, demanded for efficiency by standard frame construction, could disappear altogether.

This is not science fiction; nanoscience is quickly becoming reality. In the last year or two, IBM researchers have fashioned a computer circuit from a single carbon molecule, and Cornell scientists have built a microbe-sized motor, the first nanoscale machine. Eric Drexler, who coined the word "nanotechnology" in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation, expects dramatic benefits for design, manufacturing, electronics, medicine, and every other human endeavor. Everything we make will become better, faster, stronger, smaller, and cheaper. For architects, nanoconstruction could finally accommodate the restless search for new forms, allowing varieties never before achieved or even imagined. We will be able to construct anything we envision through a virtual wave of the wand. Buildings may be conceived and executed through computer programming by entering only a few parameters and requirements. How big is it? What does it feel like? BANG! Instant architecture.

But this assumes that designers will control the process. Nanotech’s opponents see it as an untamable force, because its potential for self-replication could get out of hand. Picture trillions upon trillions of invisible mechanical pests filling the environment and utterly consuming the earth. Assuming we can avoid catastrophe, an important question is whether architecture will require architects. Will expertise become unnecessary when anyone could punch her desires into a keyboard and produce her dream home? Moreover, a building may not necessitate anyone at all to summon it into existence. Spontaneous assembly could allow nanobots to go on auto-pilot. While Feynman saw nanoscience as arranging atoms "the way we want them," in actuality they could develop unpredictably, in ways we may or may not want.

Such technology may both fully realize and ultimately subvert many of architecture’s most enduring paradigms. The notion of "organic architecture," which Frank Lloyd Wright defined as "building the way nature builds," will no longer be just a metaphor. By modifying themselves over successive generations, ebbing and flowing in endless cycles of reproduction and adaptation, nanoassemblers could produce architecture through a process similar to genetic evolution—only faster—and therefore build exactly "the way nature builds." On the other hand, Wright intended to establish a method through which designers could shape the entire visible environment at every scale: sites, structures, furnishings, and fixtures. While buildings may become literally organic, they may also become autonomous, free from the control of designers. Design itself may become an antiquated concept. Artificial creation will be pointless when all things organic and synthetic develop "naturally."

Wright felt that architectural form should stem from the inherent "nature" of its materials: "Each material speaks a language of its own." In his mind, the proportions, heft and texture of brick logically translated into structures like the Robie House, which extends horizontally and hugs the land. Clay, shaped and laid by the hand, returns to the earth; craft transforms nature. But when the constituent parts of a building are too small to be seen with the naked eye, the relationships between form and materials will change. What is the "language" of a nanobot? Because the character of a building may vary upon command—hard and opaque one minute, soft and transparent the next—the fabric of buildings may become fluid, fluctuating states from solid to liquid to gas and back. The notion of truth in materials will become irrelevant. In fact, the word material may go away. When the basic building blocks of architecture have no strict definition, structure and substance will separate. Matter won’t matter.

Artificial intelligence poses similar conundrums. In The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), inventor and technology guru Ray Kurzweil maintains that if current trends continue, computers will surpass the memory capacity and computational speed of the human brain in the next twenty years. Complex machines will begin to exhibit processes resembling awareness and emotions, and by the end of the century, human and mechanical consciousness will become indistinguishable. There is no reason to believe that buildings will not also get smarter. At first they will learn to perform conventional functions better by adjusting to circumstances without being told to do so. Already, computers are being integrated with building systems to monitor and respond automatically to variations in temperature, airflow, energy consumption, wind loads, and other conditions. At the moment, these features simply act in ways predetermined by programmers, but it is only a matter of time before smart buildings begin to calculate for themselves how to behave. They will adapt, and eventually they may exercise free will. A thinking building—sentient architecture —will answer for itself Louis Kahn’s question, "What does this building want to be?" Architects’ conjectures about the desires of buildings will be beside the point; the buildings will tell us what they want, or they may just take it without consulting us. Sheltering us may prove to be less than fulfilling for an intelligent structure. Kurzweil predicts that in this century we will concede that machines have legal and civil rights. Will buildings become as privileged as their inhabitants?

When we begin to see buildings as our equals, our psychological relationship with architecture will be completely redefined. Buildings will become more like us, but we may become more like them, as well. Kurzweil is certain that artificial enhancements of the human body will increase until we are more synthetic than organic. Inevitably, new types of bodies will be considered. It will become possible to scan the mind and download it into more durable or flexible containers, and the need for shelter from the elements might become unnecessary. Our future bodies may look and act nothing like our current bodies. The humanist tradition in architecture, which depends upon the reciprocal relationships between the body and buildings, will collapse as age-old standards of scale, proportion, and habitation become meaningless. Existing concepts of space and place may be discarded. Kurzweil foresees a time when all conscious beings will no longer have a permanent physical presence. Not just buildings but all material things will come into question as existence begins to be defined separately from tangible experience. Virtual reality may become the only reality, and the form life will take is probably unfathomable to us now.

Clearly, the impact of technology on the future of humanity will be more momentous than the fate of any particular discipline or profession. Nevertheless, profound changes in architecture are happening right now, and how we confront change is an urgent question. As a software developer, Bill Joy is concerned primarily with the ethics of design: "As a toolbuilder I must struggle with the uses to which the tools I make are put." Architects, however, rarely consider ethics before aesthetics. In our love affair with technology, we often forget to question its use. All great buildings are a marriage of technique and purpose, but in much recent architecture, built and unbuilt, technique overshadows purpose. Today our facility with making form is unprecedented, yet the most sophisticated methods are irrelevant if our intentions are misdirected. If the task of architecture is to create exotic forms, eventually we may find that our tools will overtake us in this ability. But if our aim is to provide meaningful, humane places, we must be vigilant in pursuing this goal, or the future of architecture may not need us.

Lance Hosey is featured in November 2003's archrecord2 and has previously contributed to In The Cause — "Food for thought ".

 

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Posted 06/07/02